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Racists

by Kunal Basu
214 pages,
ISBN: 029785139X

Encounters with Wild Children:
Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature


by Adriana S. BenzaquTn
394 pages,
ISBN: 0773529721


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Wild Events, Wilder Interpretations
by Eric Miller

We are interpretative animals. As parents, for example, we have a necessary investment in interpreting the behaviour of children. To protect them and foster them, we require proficiency at this art or science. Interpretation of the young engrosses both Kunal Basu in his novel Racists and Adriana S. BenzaquTn in her cultural history Encounters with Wild Children. Understanding children can be one means to self-knowledge. This knowledge may have a private or collective character, or (in the case of literature) it may aspire to combine intimacy with universality.
Literature loves islands¨whether Calypso's aromatic refuge with its alder and poplar and cypress, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau's +le de Saint-Pierre with its self-heal and moss. Mortal Odysseus wants to abandon the goddess Calypso and her secluded home. Solaced by botany and reverie, Rousseau craves, contrarily, to tarry forever on his water-girt asylum. Odysseus loves his wife Penelope; the power of human love helps to propel him from the embrace of a divinity and an island. Radical Rousseau flees the persecution of 1765, and ostracism conditions his doubtful discovery of insulated bliss on Lac Bienne. There, he imagines (and perhaps experiences) a state in which "we are self-sufficient like God." John Donne only makes explicit what Homer and Rousseau's stories already tell us: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent." Embodying the paradox of isolation and integration, of deprivation and metamorphosis, islands even provide the decisive setting for Charles Darwin's narrative of biological evolution, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. Visiting the Galapagos in 1835, Darwin noted, "The natural history [of the archipelago] is eminently curious, and well deserves attention." Kunal Basu's Racists employs an island locale to explore topics with which Homer, Rousseau, and Donne would be familiar: what is the place of love, family, nature, duty, curiosity, and violence in human life? A teacher at Oxford University, Basu has published two previous works, The Miniaturist and The Opium Clerk. He evokes 19th-century Arlinda, a harsh island off the west coast of Africa with some affinity, in its severities, to Darwin's Galapagos.
Basu writes in a style suggestive of a terser Michael Ondaatje. His lush succinctness serves his tale well, since it is, so to speak, verbally adapted to the conditions of Arlinda. Basu characterises the dominant vegetation:
"The trees are evergreen and many bloom all year round, including the arlinda after which the island is named. It yields a fruit with a kernel as hard and dark as loose rock and just as inedible. It rots on the forest floor. Portuguese merchants once collected a few sacks and made a poison to kill ship rats. But it didn't kill them¨turned them blind instead, made them run helter-skelter and fall into the sea."

Hovering here between literal and figurative registers of meaning, Basu touches on several cardinal themes of his book: perseverance, paradoxically fruitless fruit, experiment, chance, and blindness. In 1855, Arlinda is the chosen site for a study¨more of an ordeal, really, in almost the medieval sense¨which aims in part to prove that the European "race" is superior to the African. Two scientists collaborate in the project, Samuel Bates of the Royal College of Physicians and Jean-Louis Belavoix of the SociTtT Ethnologique of Paris. Their collaboration is, in fact, a contest. Bates adheres to the belief that all human beings originated from the scriptural proto-parents, as a "Race Adamique". He holds, however, that variations in the shape and volume of the skull infallibly demonstrate the inferiority of all other human types to the European. Belavoix identifies himself as a polygenist, convinced that there exists no common origin for all the peoples on the planet. Encountering one another, these diverse kinds fight for supremacy, and it is chance more than any other factor that decides the outcome of their struggle. The researchers deposit on Arlinda a mute Englishwoman, Norah, with two babies, an African boy and a British girl. Norah's apparent muteness, as well as a set of strict injunctions not to interfere, will supposedly prevent any contamination of the children by culture. Far from incarnating any Rousseau-like ideal of natural goodness, these enfants sauvages will supposedly clinch the argument for either Bates or Belavoix. Bates hopes that the girl will vanquish the boy, to vindicate his insistence on the pre-eminence of her "race", despite the intrinsic inferiority of her sex; Belavoix expects a "racial murder" to corroborate his ineluctably agonistic view of life. Neither scientist can accommodate the advent of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, which posits our common genesis in animal forebears and postulates a confounding synthesis of strife and fortuity.
The scientists Bates and Belavoix periodically revisit Arlinda in order to assess the development of their "samples", the children. But, despite their thoroughness, they cannot exclude from the environment the novelistic prerogative of feeling. Norah begins to love the boy and the girl who are her charges. Bates's assistant, Nicholas Quartley, pines for Norah. He asks himself this question: "Had he abandoned science for love?" And of course science itself is permeated by love, however inadmissible some manifestations of this sentiment may remain.
Perhaps love is the great theme of Racists. Bates collects human skulls from around the globe; to each is attached a brief biographical statement, a tiny but tenacious scrap of narrative. Quartley, curator of these human remains, manifests attachment even to such exiguous relics: they are at once specimens, people, and parables, and when they are sold to defray Bates's costs he feels a pang. As for Bates and Belavoix, they love each other in the way of rivals¨ironically and duplicitously. This fraternal affection, mediated through competing allegiances to England and France, complicates the significance of their scientific combat. In their behaviour, they resemble, in fact, the "samples" whom they observe, showing that the spirit of opposition itself has no inherent link to skull size or skin colour or gender; as William Blake says, opposition may constitute "true friendship".
Another kind of love motivates everyone in Racists: the love of interpretation, which is also the love of telling stories¨and persuading an audience. Basu touches on profundity when he repeatedly depicts the actions of the boy and the girl¨then the grotesque exegesis to which interested parties subsequently subject their observations. Particularly touching and troubling is the episode in which the boy and the girl steal a gruesome pseudo-scientific device belonging to Bates. They carry it up a hill slope on Arlinda:

"Out of its box, the new instrument looks just like others¨a curious tangle of metal rods and wooden arms. It gleams even in the waning light. After suitable admiration, the girl draws it closer to her, passing her hand over it, as if she is the assistant readying it for a test. Its trap is different from the one they are used to . . .
Once again, the girl fiddles with a knob or two, springing open a nest large enough to hold a small cranium. The discovery startles her, but she presses on, pushing her head in. The trap fits her neatly, snapping shut with a light touch Ó Much as she tries, the trap remains shut. It refuses to open despite her frantic efforts. She tries to wriggle her way out, but the snap has tightened around her neck, bitten into her skin. Each time she jerks her head to bring it out of the instrument, like the devil it pulls her back . . .
The boy watches silently. He has made no move to help her . . . His face shows no dismay at their game gone astray. As if this is the game. His game . . . Her eyes have closed, just a whimpering noise remaining.
The boy rises. He bends to examine the girl's condition, then releases the trap with a deft move, turning the knobs like an expert . . . Lifting up the instrument, the boy hurls it down the hill with one powerful fling of his arm."

Like Kunal Basu, Adriana S. BenzaquTn focuses on children and predicaments of interpretation. The epilogue of her Encounters with Wild Children offers the moral that her erudition has earned and substantiated:

"The knowledge produced by the human sciences fosters the illusion that we know the other before actually meeting him or her . . . Equipped with scientific, ready-made knowledge we approach the other as if we knew her or him already."

Throughout her book, BenzaquTn's asides are worthy and wise: "One troublesome property of the concept of normality is that the boundary between normal and abnormal is never fixed and exceedingly permeable." The beginning of her book, preoccupied with laying out the terms salient to her argument and schematically reviewing previous scholarship, drags somewhat, but once she descends¨or rather ascends¨to the scrutiny of particular cases, Encounters with Wild Children satisfies curiosity, induces wonder, and arouses feeling. She discusses famous "samples"¨to use the vocabulary of Basu's character Bates¨such as the "savage" girl of Songi and Victor of Aveyron. George I himself took an interest in Peter of Hanover, captured in 1724. The boy's behaviour manifests the pure unexpectedness that Basu sometimes attributes to his fictional children:

"In the beginning he sometimes kissed now the walls, now the ground, and then his hands, just as he used to unbutton the clothes of anyone whom he met and kissed them on the chest. He could not stand women, but pushed them away from him with both hands and feet. If someone showed him fruit, particularly nuts, he would fall on the ground and kiss it as well as kiss his own hands and throw kisses to everybody. He did not care much about money, but always threw it away from him, though some say that he very skilfully hid money in his hair."

Although BenzaquTn's focus is wild children, her account teaches the reader to see more clearly how his or her existence is to one degree or another subject to multiple misconstructions¨sometimes out of wrongheaded benevolence, often out of fear, and always out of the subjugation of everyone, interpreted and interpreter alike, to the confines of one historical horizon. Those confines are as strict as an island's. Together Basu and BenzaquTn open and offer room for interpretation¨some of the most important living space on the planet, whether in the 19th century or the 21st. ˛

Eric Miller teaches at the University of Victoria. His second book of poetry, In the Scaffolding, was short-listed for the 2006 ReLit Award. His book of prose, The Reservoir, appeared with Ekstasis in 2006.
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